The previous Chinese communities profiled in my “No Chinatown…” series, Atlanta, Dallas, Miami, and Houston, are of more recent establishment and did not have 19th century center city core Chinatowns. In this regard, San Diego departs from this model in that it did in fact have a historic Chinatown, located near what is now the downtown convention center. However, given that vestiges of the old Chinatown are long gone save for a local museum and some historical markers, San Diego is like the other cities in this series because concentrations of authentic Chinese food are found on the outskirts. Though there are numerous sources of authentic Chinese food in San Diego, it should not be assumed that San Diego is similar Los Angeles or south Orange County despite its geographic proximity. San Diego does not match either of those in terms of quality, variety, or cutting-edge culinary developments. Certain Chinese regional styles common in Los Angeles or Orange County may have only one or two representatives in San Diego, and others none at all. But there is still enough good authentic Chinese food in San Diego to keep local residents happy.
In San Diego, the area most synonymous with good Chinese food is the Kearny Mesa district, located about 10 miles north of downtown San Diego. Kearny Mesa is a special place to me, because when I first visited there almost 25 years ago, it was the first time I had discovered an unheralded Chinese district with Chinese restaurants, banks, and stores. Like most Angelinos, I was an occasional visitor to San Diego, and had never found anything particularly special there in the way of Chinese food. Indeed, the most notable thing about San Diego Chinese food at that time had been in the suburban city of Chula Vista where a number of Chinese restaurants from Tijuana and Mexicali had set up US branches. Restaurants like Café Palacio de Oro, Seafood Palacio, Oriental Palace and Ocean City provided an interesting take on Chinese food. Unfortunately, only Ocean City is still around today, and it is just another Chinese buffet. Consequently, those looking for Mexican-style Chinese food these days need to head further out to Calexico or elsewhere in Imperial County.
I was clued to Kearny Mesa by, of all things, an announcement that my Los Angeles Chinatown bank had just opened a location in San Diego. “Aha!” I thought. If the community could support a Chinese bank, then maybe there were authentic Chinese restaurants. So, on my next trip to San Diego, I made my way to Convoy Street, with its unending succession of strip malls, eventually reaching the bank. While making a small deposit, I chatted up the teller, asking about good Chinese food, and he directed me to his favorites, San Choy Seafood and Wei’s Potsticker.
San Choy and Wei’s are long gone, but the Chinese restaurant population on Convoy Street has grown over the years, with some of the shopping centers now having multiple Chinese restaurants. Most notable on Convoy are the Hong Kong-style seafood restaurants China Max, Jasmine, and Emerald Seafood. These are three of the best known Chinese restaurants in San Diego and all serve dim sum at lunchtime. But like most other Chinese-American communities, non-Cantonese restaurants are also making their mark on Convoy St. Jin’s Pot is one of a very small number of Yunnan-style restaurants in the United States, while Sichuan-style cuisine has several representatives, including FuAn Garden, Spicy City, and Szechuan Chef. (Despite San Diego’s secondary status for Chinese food, Spicy City has opened up branches in Irvine and San Gabriel.) For Taiwanese cuisine, there is Los Angeles area transplant Liang’s Kitchen; Hong Kong café food is represented by A Café, while dumplings are on the menu at Dumpling Inn.
While most of the Kearny Mesa eating area is centered on Convoy Street, there are also some prime choices on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard. Though further west of Kearny Mesa, the international Little Sheep Mongolian Hot Pot chain (now part of Yum! Brands) set up its first Southern California branch on Clairemont Mesa, and is one of the best hotpot options in all of Southern California. Other choices on the boulevard include E&Drink in the 99 Ranch Supermarket center for Taiwanese and hotpot, and for Cantonese food, Golden City.
Two more areas of San Diego also have concentrations of good Chinese food, in both cases as a result of what might be called the Vietnamese effect. With a sizable ethnic Chinese population in Vietnam, one finds that in Vietnamese-American communities there are numerous Vietnamese-Chinese restaurants as well as authentic fully Chinese restaurants. Consequently, with Vietnamese communities in Mira Mesa and East San Diego, there are numerous restaurants serving authentic Chinese food. In Mira Mesa, your best choice is Hong Kong BBQ & Dim Sum, a largely takeout eatery located inside a Vietnamese-Chinese supermarket on Camino Ruiz. Another good choice is Chin’s Seafood and Grill, the best of a string of similarly named restaurants in the San Diego area. This branch of Chin’s serves top-notch Shanghai-style food, but may be hard to find because it’s right next to and obscured by a large Holiday Inn.
The third area of Chinese restaurants is in East San Diego, particularly peppered among the Vietnamese businesses on University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard. Most of these restaurants are hole-in-the wall small eateries, but the one exception is Lee’s Garden, a banquet-sized facility serving Hong Kong-style seafood on 54th Street between University Avenue and El Cajon. Dating back to the 1980s, it’s past its prime under my 20-year rule, but is still an important cog in the San Diego Chinese community. Meanwhile, in the hole-in-the wall category, 777 Noodle House on University Ave. is a top choice.
One caution about San Diego area Chinese food is that over time, there may be wide variations in the quality of a particular Chinese restaurant. For example, the best Chinese meal I ever had in San Diego was at Pearl Restaurant in Rancho Bernardo, which was comparable to meals I had in the San Gabriel Valley. Yet recent reports indicate Pearl has gone downhill, such that its historically lesser regarded sister restaurant on Convoy, Emerald Seafood, has improved and surpassed it. Other reports tell of restaurants going up, down, and then back up in quality over the years. One can only speculate the reason for this. Perhaps it’s due to ownership changes, and the accompanying changes in staff. Another possibility is with San Diego being a secondary Chinese community, chefs may come and go more often, perhaps jumping at the chance to head north. Fortunately in this regard there is a reliable San Diego food blog which periodically revisits some of the Chinese restaurants for exactly this reason.
David R. Chan is a third-generation American who has eaten at 7,000 Chinese restaurants and counting. He maintains a spreadsheet of each of his culinary conquests — a document he began in the early 90s, when he bought his first home computer. "When I entered the workforce in the 1970s, that coincided with the rise of what we think of as authentic Chinese food in North America," Chan told the LA Weekly Squid Ink blog. "As such, my goal was to try every authentic Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area at least once." He has extended his list to New York, San Francisco, and thousands of restaurants beyond. Still, Chan admits, he can't use chopsticks.